As I mentioned in my reviews of both Kushiel's Dart and Kushiel's Chosen, I feel decidedly dumb to have waited for over a decade to finally give this series a shot. Even more so now that I've read the final installment. Kushiel's Avatar was everything it needed to be to bring this trilogy to a satisfying end. And then some!
This shouldn't come as a surprise, as the first volume turned out to be the very best fantasy debut I have ever read, and the second installment was nearly as good as its predecessor. And yet, regardless of their quality, Kushiel's Avatar blows them out of the water. Simply put, it's one of the best fantasy novels I have ever read. Jacqueline Carey truly hit it out of the park. A grand slam, if ever there was one.
About two years ago, I contacted Carey to ask if I could jump into this multi-volume tale by starting with the second trilogy. Like most avid readers, I own hundreds and hundreds of books. My locker is full of boxes of novels and I also have boxes and boxes full of them in storage elsewhere. But try as I might, I couldn't find Carey's first series. Hence, once more I have to thank the author for cobbling together a set of the first three installments so I could review them. I can't thank her enough for doing this, as this is one of the most awesome speculative fiction series of all time!
Here's the blurb:
The land of Terre d' Ange is a place of unsurpassed beauty and grace. It is said that angels found the land and saw it was good...and the ensuing race that rose from the seed of angels and men live by one simple rule: Love as thou wilt. Phèdre nó Delaunay is a woman born with a scarlet mote in her left eye and sold into indentured servitude as a child. Her bond was purchased by a nobleman, and he was the first one to recognize who and what she is: one pricked by Kushiel's Dart, chosen to forever experience pain and pleasure as one. Phèdre's path has taken a strange and sometimes dangerous course. She has lain with princes and pirate kings, battled a wicked temptress who is still determined to win the crown at any cost, and saved two nations with her courageous actions and sacrifices. Through it all she has had the devoted swordsman Joscelin at her side, who knew from the beginning what she was. Her very nature is a torturous thing for them both, and it is a bane on their lives--but he is sworn to her and by accepting who she is, Joscelin has never violated the central precept of the angel Cassiel: to protect and serve. But Phèdre's plans will put his pledge to the test, for she has never forgotten her childhood friend Hyacinthe. She has spent ten long years searching for the key to free him from his eternal indenture to the Master of Straights, a bargain with the gods that he struck so that a nation could be saved; in doing so, he took Phèdre's place as a sacrifice. She cannot forget, and she cannot forgive--herself or the gods. She is determined to seize one last hope to redeem her friend, even if it means her death. Their search will bring Phèdre and Joscelin on a dangerous path that will carry them across the world, to fabled courts and splendid vistas, to distant lands where madness reigns and souls are currency, and down a fabled river to a land forgotten by most of the world. And to a power so mighty that none dare speak its name. Kushiel's Avatar is the concluding volume in Jacqueline Carey's evocative novels about the enigmatic Phèdrenó Delaunay; the third in a triptych of beautifully constructed historical fantasies that combine passion and danger, great battles of the sword and soul, deep eroticism, and mystical enigmas.
Once again, the worldbuilding was absolutely astonishing. The backdrop for this series isn't the usual European medieval environment. It is more akin to the Renaissance era and it is set in an alternate version of Western Europe. Kushiel's Dart and Kushiel's Chosen were sprawling novels, more far-reaching than most fantasy books out there. Given the blurb, it appeared that the author would take us on fabulous journeys that would enable us to discover more about her universe, and I wasn't disappointed. Beyond the alternate France, other countries such Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, and Azerbaijan are explored and play a big role as Phèdre's tale progresses. And that's just in the first portion of Kushiel's Avatar! Indeed, the book is comprised of two major storylines, and the quest to free Hyacinthe represents the second part of the novel. Just when you thought that it couldn't get more exotic, Jacqueline Carey takes readers on an expedition throughout Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Unganda, and Kenya. Richly detailed and imagined in terms of cultures, religions, and politics, Kushiel's Avatar is another textured and sophisticated novel that hits all the right buttons. And as was the case with the first two Kushiel installments, the web of murder and political intrigue that Carey wove through this one is as impressive and unanticipated as the politicking of such masters as George R. R. Martin and Katherine Kurtz.
As I've said before, Jacqueline Carey writes with an elegance that reminds me of Guy Gavriel Kay. As a plot kind of guy, I seldom praise a writer's prose. Still, Carey's prose is something special and it could well be the very best in the genre today. Even the darkest and more shocking scenes are written with a distinctive literary grace, making them even more powerful than they would be in the hands of a less gifted author. A number of incredibly dark and downright disturbing scenes featuring Phèdre and the Mahrkagir of Drujan come to mind here and I doubt that most SFF writers would have been able to pull them off the way Carey managed to do so. Her gripping prose creates an imagery filled with wonder and beauty that never fails to enthrall. Even better, à la Robin Hobb, Carey also possesses a subtle human touch which imbues some scenes with even more emotional impact. Speaking of Hobb, I always maintained that no one made their characters suffer as much as she did. Well, it appears that Carey is determined to give Hobb a run for her money in that regard!
In my reviews of both Kushiel's Dart and Kushiel's Chosen, I mentioned that a woman who embraces her sexuality can be quite intimidating to men. Even more so, I opined, to male SFF geeks. I felt that Phèdre's disconcerting (according to many, even in today's Western society) sexuality, what with it tinged with sadomasochism, indubitably had something to do with the fact that the first Kushiel series was not held with such high esteem as some of the boys' club favorites like Brandon Sanderson, Patrick Rothfuss, Scott Lynch, and Joe Abercrombie. In truth, as a younger man I'm quite sure I wouldn't have gotten into Carey's books. I also believe that Phèdre's sexuality and the way sex is portrayed and used throughout these books certainly have something to do with the fact that Carey's novels seldom make the cut when feminist SFF bloggers/reviewers suggest books and series written by female SFF authors to read. And the world is a much poorer place for that oversight. Be that as it may, in order to understand and appreciate Phèdre's psyche and motivations, I still believe one must be part of a more mature audience. Yet not just because of the sex and other R-rated elements. Indeed, it would be too easy to simply focus on the sexuality which permeates every aspect of these novels. True, sexuality lies at the heart of these books. But there is so much more than that. These stories are filled with a myriad of nuances and nothing is ever black or white. Kushiel's Avatar, like its predecessors, is another remarkable and intricately plotted tale featuring an unforgettable cast of men and women that will leave no reader indifferent.
As a matter of course, this novel features the first person narrative of Phèdre nó Delaunay, a deeply flawed character. Still, her strengths and weaknesses make her genuine and her perspective, that of an older Phèdre relating the story of her past, misleads readers on numerous occasions by playing with their expectations. In addition, I loved how Phèdre's strenghts occasionally became her weaknesses and vice versa. I have to admit that I will miss her point of view. I particularly loved how, though those were powerfully dark scenes, it was the fact that she was an anguissette which allowed Phèdre to endure the pain, the humiliation, and the self-loathing, and gave her the will to do what needed to be done with the Mahrkagir. I'm aware that the second trilogy will feature Imriel's POV and I'm not sure how I feel about this. And even though I've often wished to see the story unfold through the eyes of more protagonists, chief among them Joscelin Verreuil, there is no denying that it is Phèdre's POV which gives this series its unique flavor. The more poignant moments would never have been as moving or distressing as they were, if not for Phèdre's perspective. Once more, the supporting cast is comprised of a variety of three-dimensional men and women. Many of them, in their own way, through their interactions with Phèdre, add even more layers to an already convulated plot. Although ten years have come and gone since the events chronicled within the pages of Kushiel's Chosen, several characters return in this final volume, and there are also quite a few new faces that will help or hinder Phèdre along the way. This decade has allowed Phèdre and Joscelin to grow in maturity and evolve as people. Especially Joscelin, who used to be so duty-bound and stiff-necked, and God knows that Phèdre has not made it easy for him, who has grown more at peace with what his love for Phèdre demands of him. There is a much more humane side of him in Kushiel's Avatar, especially when he's around children. The bond he creates with Imriel was very special and the fishing scene (you know the one I'm talking about) hits you like a punch in the gut. Beyond Phèdre and Joscelin, this one would never have been such an incredible read without the presence of such characters as Melisande Shahrizai, Queen Ysandre, Drustan mab Necthana, Imriel, Quintilius Rousse, Ti-Philippe, Eleazar ben Enokh, the women of the zenana in Drujan, the wise women of Tisaar, and many more. And thankfully, once again, not that there was any doubt in my mind, à la Mark Lawrence, Robin Hobb, and L. E. Modessit, jr., Carey doesn't follow the path of least resistance and her characters remain true to themselves till the very end. For good or ill, it must be said.
In terms of pace, even though this book is comprised of two distinct storylines, the rhythm flows well. Kushiel's Avatar may be a doorstopper of a book, but it's another page-turner. The author always had a knack for coming up with plot twists that suck you in and won't let go, forcing you to keep going to discover what comes next, promising yourself that you'll read just another chapter before turning in. And when you suddenly come out of a daze, you realize that it's 1:00AM and that you've read over 200 pages. This third volume is another sophisticated and multilayered read full of wonder and sensuality. Written on an epic scale and with an elegance rarely seen in this subgenre, Jacqueline Carey did it again, closing the show with definite style and aplomb. Edgy and sexy, that goes without saying. Yet it's also as complex, satisfying, and rewarding as any of the best speculative fiction works ever written.
Kushiel's Avatar is a memorable conclusion to a phenomenal fantasy series. With such a perfect finale, Jacqueline Carey set the bar incredibly high for what comes next. Time will tell if the second and third trilogies will live up to the lofty expectations generated by these first three books. . .